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When Journalism Turns Personal

Published:

When Journalism Turns Personal

By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, November 6, 2008; 7:26 AM

 

When Bob Schieffer was growing up in Fort Worth, black people were allowed to visit the city parks and the zoo one day a year. "I did not shake hands with a black person until I was in the U.S. Air Force -- not because I didn't want to, but because they lived on one side of town and I lived on the other side," the CBS newsman says.

As a son of the segregated South, Schieffer depicted Barack Obama's victory Tuesday as "a momentous time in American history . . . I just thought it was more than an election." And he had plenty of company. On television, on Web sites, in newspapers--with such headlines as The Washington Post's "Obama Makes History" and the Wall Street Journal's "Obama Sweeps to Historic Victory"--the media are awash in superlatives.

Some conservatives say news organizations went overboard for ideological reasons. The media cast the choice between Obama and John McCain as "a referendum on the goodness of America," MSNBC commentator Tucker Carlson says. "I just resent the implication that America is a better country if it voted for Barack Obama. . . . That's a slur on people who voted against Obama. I think the press dropped its pretense of objectivity on this campaign a while ago."

Separating the personal from the political is far from easy when an African-American wins the White House for the first time in the country's 220-year history. Juan Williams, a National Public Radio commentator, choked up on Fox News Tuesday night.

It was once "unthinkable," he says, that he would even be on television. "When I was a kid growing up in Brooklyn, there were no black writers at the New York Times, New York Post or Daily News."

But in the black community, Williams says he "gets beat up because I treat Obama as a politician as opposed to the rock star image.People think you should be a fan"

Roland Martin, a Chicago radio host, teared up on CNN when Obama was projected the winner.

"I said a small prayer," he says. "I began to think of black soldiers returning from war who were lynched," he says. "I thought of hearing the cries of ancestors breaking the chains of slavery. I thought, my God, nearly 400 years of what black folks have endured."

Moments later, "I thought of being able to look my nine nieces and four nephews in the eye and say with absolute certainty, 'Yes, you could be president of the United States.' And I began to cry again."

But it was not just black commentators who seemed to respond emotionally. CNN's David Gergen quoted Martin Luther King. NBC's David Gregory declared that "the ultimate color line has now been crossed." Did they get carried away? As co-host of MSNBC's coverage, Keith Olbermann compared Obama's election to landing a man on the moon. "I think our excitement at the imminent history matched the nation's," Olbermann says, adding that "the tone was appropriate throughout." Even McCain supporters, he says, recognized that "this was a milestone in world history. Turns out the public was in the tank for Obama."

George Stephanopoulos, ABC's chief Washington correspondent, says journalists had to "honor" what Obama had accomplished. "Reporting on and praising an achievement honestly doesn't have to be partisan, and I don't think it was," he says. Had Republican Colin Powell run in 1996 "and become the first African-American president, you would have felt the magnitude of the moment in the coverage."

Fox News pounded Obama in recent weeks over his past contacts with onetime terrorist William Ayers, former preacher Jeremiah Wright and the community group ACORN. But anchor Brit Hume told viewers that Obama's winning personality had blunted the criticism.

"One reason the attacks on him didn't stick, despite some radical elements in his background," Hume says, "is that it just didn't fit with a man who is extremely charming and appealing, who resounded with reasonableness and a certain eloquent mildness."

Asked about the drumbeat of Fox criticism, Hume says that he does not speak for the network but that "we were not wrong to go there," given Obama's meager public record. He contrasts that with what he calls soft treatment by the mainstream media.

"The appeal of the man, the wariness of Republicans in power in Washington, a general sympathy with elements of his agenda, a sense of history--all of that combined to create an atmosphere in which a lot of journalists didn't look at him in the same way they would look at any other candidate."Although studies have shown that McCain drew far more negative coverage than Obama as his campaign faltered, most journalists maintain that they were fair to both sides. "There's nobody in American politics that I know better, or admire more, than John McCain," Schieffer says.

Newspapers gave Obama his due, with huge headlines and generally laudatory editorials, but the front pages quickly focused on the challenges facing the president-elect.

The New York Times said Obama, with "no real executive experience," now faces "the responsibility of prosecuting two wars, protecting the nation from terrorist threat and stitching back together a shredded economy." The Post said no new president had faced such difficulties "since Franklin D. Roosevelt was inaugurated at the depths of the Great Depression." The Los Angeles Times questioned whether Obama will govern as "too much of the ambitious liberal" or "too much the cautious mediator" who "risks losing the energy and idealism that attracted millions to his candidacy."

Demand for Wednesday morning's papers was unusually high in several cities. The Post, for instance, sold out and decided to print 150,000 commemorative editions for afternoon distribution.

We'll discuss the political arguments about the election in a moment, but these are some juicy excerpts from the campaign trail, part of  Newsweek'squadrennial behind-the-scenes book project:

"While publicly supporting Palin, McCain's top advisers privately fumed at what they regarded as her outrageous profligacy. One senior aide said that Nicolle Wallace had told Palin to buy three suits for the convention and hire a stylist. But instead, the vice presidential nominee began buying for herself and her family--clothes and accessories from top stores such as Saks Fifth Avenue and Neiman Marcus.

"According to two knowledgeable sources, a vast majority of the clothes were bought by a wealthy donor, who was shocked when he got the bill. Palin also used low-level staffers to buy some of the clothes on their credit cards. The McCain campaign found out last week when the aides sought reimbursement. One aide estimated that she spent 'tens of thousands' more than the reported $150,000, and that $20,000 to $40,000 went to buy clothes for her husband. Some articles of clothing have apparently been lost. An angry aide characterized the shopping spree as 'Wasilla hillbillies looting Neiman Marcus from coast to coast.' "

And: "At the GOP convention in St. Paul, Palin was completely unfazed by the boys' club fraternity she had just joined. One night, Steve Schmidt and Mark Salter went to her hotel room to brief her. After a minute, Palin sailed into the room wearing nothing but a towel, with another on her wet hair. She told them to chat with her laconic husband, Todd."

No  wonder  they loved her.

But not any more. Unnamed McCain aides tell Fox's Carl Cameron that Palin didn't know which countries were in NATO; the essence of NAFTA, or that Africa was a continent, not a country. She refused interview prep before the Katie sitdown, Cameron reports, and later threw "tantrums" and was so "nasty" that she reduced some staffers to tears. It's getting brutal.

Transition speculation is under way, and the floating of  Caroline Kennedy's name as a possible ambassador to the U.N. prompts the inspired New York Post headline: "BAMELOT."

Why did Obama win, and what does it mean?

Politico's  John Harris and Jim VandeHei  see nothing less than an earthquake:

"For most of the past 30 years, since the dawn of the Reagan Era, conservatives have held the momentum in American politics. Even the Clinton years were shaped -- and constrained -- by conservative ideas (work requirements for welfare, the Defense of Marriage Act) and conservative rhetoric ('the era of Big Government is over'). Republicans rode this wave to win the presidency five of seven times since 1980, and to dominate Congress for a dozen years after 1994. Now the wave has crashed, breaking the back of the modern Republican Party in the process.

"Obama's victory and the second straight election to award big gains to congressional Democrats showed that the 2006 election was not, as Karl Rove and others argued at the time, a flukish result that reflected isolated scandals in the headlines at the time. Republicans lost their reform mantle. Voters who wanted change voted for Obama 89 percent to 9 percent. They lost their decisive edge on national security. They even lost the battle over taxes."

McCain confidant Mark Salter tells  Roger Simon: "I do believe and will never be dissuaded otherwise that the media had their thumb on the scale. Maybe if the media had been fair, we still would have lost. But there were two different standards of scrutiny for us and Obama."

National Review  wonders whether Obama is a closet righty:

"All Americans should be glad that a black American has been able to make it to the presidency, and hope that President-elect Barack Obama's time in office will redound to the country's long-term benefit. We wish the outcome of yesterday's elections had been different . . .

"Yet the public has not embraced many of the central aspects of liberalism. President-elect Barack Obama's record and positions put him well to the left of any president in the last four decades. But to judge from his campaign, he is a man who wants to cut taxes, defend an individual right to own guns, take a hard line on terrorists in Pakistan, reduce the abortion rate, allow people to keep their health-care plans, and keep trade free. The polls suggest that he was wise to run in this fashion: They show that the public remains as skeptical about federal activism and social liberalism as they have been for years. The public has, however, clearly rejected the Republican party in its present configuration."

Rush Limbaugh  strikes a defiant chord:

"We're being told here today by the wizards of smart on our side, 'We need to be gracious in defeat.' My answer to that is, 'Screw defeat! Screw this whole notion that we have to sit around and try to show these people that we're the nice people, that they don't think that we are.' . . . We gotta be honest with ourselves about why we lost this battle . . . And the core of the problem is that the Republican Party (for some inexplicable reason that I don't care about now) decided to abandon conservatism."

Some analysts, says the New Republic's  John Judis, are wrongly looking at Obama's win through the prism of the Carter and Clinton presidencies:

"Both Carter and Clinton did misjudge the mood of the country. They tried unsuccessfully to govern a country from the center-left that was moving to the right (in Carter's case) or that was only just beginning to move leftward (in Clinton's case), and were rebuked by the voters.

"But Obama is taking office under dramatically different circumstances. His election is the culmination of a Democratic realignment that began in the '90s, was held in abeyance by September 11, and had resumed in the 2006 election.

"This realignment is predicated on a change in political demography and geography. Groups that had been disproportionately Republican have become disproportionately Democratic; and red states like Virginia have become blue . . .

"The country is definitely no longer "America the conservative." And with the Republican Party and big business identified with a potentially disastrous downturn, it could become over the next four years "America the liberal." That's what makes this election fundamentally different from 1976 or 1992. That's what makes this election fundamentally different from 1976 or 1992. Unlike Carter and Clinton, Obama will be taking office with the wind at his back rather than in his face."

But  Fred Barnes  makes a very different argument in the WSJ:

"In the Carter and Clinton eras, there were dozens of moderate and conservative Democrats in Congress, a disproportionate number of them committee chairs. Now the Democratic majorities in both houses are composed almost uniformly of liberals. Those few who aren't, including the tiny but heralded gang of moderates elected to the House in 2006, usually knuckle under on liberal issues. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi bosses them around like hired help."

I don't discount the impact of the moderate Dems elected in '06 and this year, and besides, the Republicans have also moved to the right. Both parties colluded in redistricting that allowed their most ideological members to easily win reelection time and again.

How did a previously obscure state senator with a funny name pull it off? Atlantic's  Marc Ambinder  has some highlights:

"--The exit polls demographics tell a story of an expansion of the Democratic-leaning electorate by Obama; he did much better with Kerry than Hispanics; he grew the ranks of younger voters; he grew the African American vote; he did a bit better among white voters, but still lost working class whites by nearly 20 points. Obama won among new voters by more than 30 points.

"-- Obama is a once-in-a-generation candidate, a brilliant communicator in an age of communication. Cool and consistent under pressure. He grew over the course of two years into a candidate voters believed was ready to be president. The right candidate at the right moment. The most un-Bush of any of the Democratic candidates.

"-- The financial crisis, and the candidates' response to it. Probably the crucial moment for both campaigns . . . Voters seemed to prefer Obama's steadiness to McCain's suspended campaign . . .

"-- Sarah Palin. Polling shows that she drove some voters away from Sen. McCain and to Barack Obama. Voters judged her to be too inexperienced to be president. Also, instead of appealing to independents, she became a polarizing figure. ALSO -- her persona highlighted McCain's age and health since she could have taken over. ALSO -- her selection killed the 'inexperience' argument against Obama."

At Hot Air, though,  Ed Morrissey  says Obama's win is less impressive than advertised:

"In 2004, Bush beat John Kerry by winning 62.04 million votes. In 2008, Obama won 62.443 million, a gain of only 400,000. In 2004, Kerry garnered 59.028 million votes; John McCain only got 55.386 million. That means this election saw 3.24 million fewer votes than four years ago. Far from being more energized, the nation appeared to be more apathetic . . .

"John McCain and the GOP didn't get their turnout in this race. They lost almost seven million voters from 2004, a rather stunning number . . . Did they stay home, or did significant numbers of them defect to Obama? I'm guessing the former. The GOP demoralized their base by acting like Democrats for too many years, and the winds of 'change' proved too dispiriting this time around . . .

"Bush is a particularly disliked incumbent. The Republican Party lost its soul when it launched its K Street Project, and the spendfest of 2001-6 only made that more clear. If the GOP wants to win 60 million votes in future national elections, it has to stand for something other than being Democrat Lite."

To heck with demographic analyses.  Tina Brown  has a more literary interpretation:

"This has been an election full of magic. White Magic that only the black man from everywhere and nowhere could perform. Even his adored grandmother dying on the eve of the victory had a mythic feeling of completion to it in a candidacy full of signs and symbols. Remember the three-point basketball shot when he played with the soldiers in Kuwait? It's as if Obama is the prince who lifts the curse in a fairy story, a curse that began eight years ago with an election wrenched away from the rightful winner and begetting as a consequence the wrathful visitation of tragedy and wars and hurricanes and economic collapse . . .

"Now can we please not risk any more catastrophes by letting this administration stick around? Just scrap the transition and let President Obama clean house right away like the Brits do at Number 10 Downing Street? In the country of my birth, the Prime Minister kisses the Queen's hand and he's in and the loser is on the way out with no time to make off with the silver."

So much for the constitutional niceties.

Entry #453

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